In a lung-related pandemic, maybe we should be thinking a little more about how many of our existing emergency vehicles—ambulances specifically—have tailpipes and big diesel engines.

Working with the Tokyo Fire Department, Nissan converted an ambulance to be fully electric. It's not the first electric ambulance, but Nissan claims it is the first one in Japan.

The electric ambulance is based on the Nissan NV400 van, which isn't sold in the United States, and isn't normally offered with an electric powertrain. Nissan does sell an electric version of the smaller NV200 van in certain markets, however.

It features two battery packs for propulsion, with a total capacity of 33 kilowatt-hours. An electric motor provides 55 kilowatts (73 horsepower) and 162 pound-feet of torque, which doesn't seem like a lot for moving a vehicle loaded with people (Nissan claims full capacity is 7) and medical equipment.

In addition to eliminating "tailpipe" emissions, the lack of noise and vibration from the electric powertrain is beneficial to both patients and paramedics, who have to handle sensitive equipment in the back of the moving vehicle, Nissan noted.

Nissan NV400 electric ambulance

Nissan NV400 electric ambulance

An additional 8-kwh battery pack allows for longer use of onboard electrical equipment and air conditioning. The ambulance can also be used as a mobile power source during a natural disaster or power outage, Nissan said. The automaker built similar capability into the current-generation Leaf, but hasn't yet provided a product or service that unlocks it for U.S. customers.

Emergency vehicles are just starting to electrify. The first electric fire truck was sold earlier this year to the Los Angeles Fire Department. Other municipal vehicles, such as garbage trucks, are starting to go electric too.

Until cities fully embrace electrification, smaller-scale emergency vehicles with electric powertrains are a possibility. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, Tropos Motors displayed a tiny electric fire truck small enough to fit into tight parking garages.

With a number of cities aiming to cut carbon-dioxide emissions dramatically, zero-emission heavy-duty and emergency vehicles will become increasingly common.

In the meantime, future emergency vehicles could go emissions-free more of the time by borrowing some elements from the Nissan Paramedic Concept shown at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show. That ambulance (below) wasn't all-electric, but used an auxiliary lithium-ion battery to power onboard medical equipment while operating in remote areas. In conventional ambulances, electricity for this equipment is generated by the engine, so this setup could help reduce emissions somewhat by allowing the engine to be shut off while parked.